The Masterful Hawaiian Fisherman

Painting by Herb Kane

Historically, Hawaiians have had five methods of fishing: spearing, hand-catching, baskets, hook and line and nets.

There were two kinds of spearing fish, below and above water (above-water spearing was very rarely used.) Below water was the most important; the spear used by the diver was a slender stick, 6 to 7 feet long, made of very hard wood and sharply pointed on one end.

Some fishermen dive to well-known habitats of certain fish and lobsters and, thrusting their arms under rocks or in holes, bring out the fish one by one and put them into a bag attached for the purpose to the loin cloth. Women frequently do the same in shallow waters, and catch fish by hand from under coral projections.

There are two ways of octopus fishing. In shallow water the spear is used. Women generally attend to this. Those caught in shallow waters vary from 1 to 4 feet in length, but the larger kinds live in deep water always and are known as blue-water octopus.

Deep-water octopus are caught with cowries; one (or more) of these shells is attached to a string with an oblong pebble on the face of the shell. A hole is pierced in one end of the back of one of the shells through which the line is passed. A hook whose point stands almost perpendicular to the shaft or shank is then fastened to the end of the line.

The fisherman having arrived at his fishing-grounds first chews and spits on the water a mouthful of kukui (candle-nut) meat which renders the water glassy and clear; he then drops the shell with hook and line into the water and swings it over a place likely to be inhabited by an octopus.

The octopus, when in its hole, is always keeping a lookout for anything eatable that may come within reach of its eight arms. The moment a cowry is perceived, an arm is shot out and the shell clasped; one arm after the other comes out.

Finally, the whole body is withdrawn from the hole and attaches itself to the cowry, which it closely hugs, curling itself all around it.

It remains very quiet while being rapidly drawn up through the water, till, just as its head is exposed above water it raises it, when the fisherman pulls the string so as to bring its head against the edge of the canoe and it is killed by a blow from a club which is struck between the eyes.

Torch-light fishing is practiced on calm dark nights. The fish are either caught with small scoop-nets or are speared. Torch-light fishing is always done in shallow water where one can wade (walking without a splash, that would disturb the fish.) The torches are made of split bamboos secured at regular intervals with leaves, or of twigs of sandal-wood bound together.

There were four kinds of basket fishing. One had a bonnet shape, woven from the ‘ie‘ie vine/shrub; it was used to catch shrimp in streams. The second is with a small basket made from the vines of morning glory. A light framework of twigs is first tied together and then the vines, leaves and all, are wound into a basket about 3-4 feet in circumference and 1 and a half deep.

Pounded shrimp and cocoa-nut fiber are occasionally placed at the bottom of the basket for bait, but usually the scent of the bruised and withering leaves seems to be sufficient.

Women always attend to this kind of fishing. They wade out to suitable places, generally small sandy openings in coral ground or reef, and let the baskets down suitably weighted to keep them in position, and move away to let the fish enter. She then grabs the basket and deposits the caught fish into a gourd, and sets the basket in a fresh place.

The third kind of basket is shallow, of about the same size as the above but wider mouthed, used in deep water for catching a small, fiat fish called ‘uiui’ that makes its appearance at intervals of from ten, fifteen, or twenty years. In these baskets cooked pumpkins, half-roasted sweet potatoes, or raw ripe papayas were placed for bait.

The fourth kind of basket is the largest kind used in fishing by the Hawaiians. These are round, rather fiat baskets, 4 to 5 feet in diameter by 2½ to 3 in depth, and about 1½ Ii across the mouth. A small cylinder or cone of wicker is attached by the large end to the mouth and turned inward towards the bottom of the basket.

The fishermen generally feed the fish (coarse, brownish-yellow alga, ripe bread-fruit, cooked pumpkins, half-roasted sweet potatoes and papayas) for a week or more before taking any, using a large basket of the same kind, without the inverted cylinder and wider in the month, to allow the fish free ingress and egress.

After a week or two of feeding they become tame, and baskets full of fish can be drawn up in the taking basket without in the least disturbing those that are still greedily feeding in the feeding basket.

For fishing with rod, hook and line the bait most liked is shrimp; earthworms are sometimes used and any obtainable fry of fish.

The fisherman takes a handful of shrimps, baits his hooks, and then, bruising the remainder and wrapping it up in cocoa-nut fiber, ties it with a pebble on the line and close to the hooks. The bruised matter spreads through the water when the line is dropped and serves to attract fishes to the vicinity of the hooks.

For hook-and-line fishing practiced in deep water, bonitos and lobsters are the usual bait; for lack of these any kind of fish is used. For deep-sea fishing the hook and line are used without rods, and our fishermen sometimes use lines over 100 fathoms in length.

There are two general divisions of the kinds of nets in use here, the long nets and the bag or purse nets. The finest of the long nets has a mesh one-half inch wide. It is generally 1½ fathoms in depth and from 40 to 60 fathoms in length.

It is used to surround and catch the small mullets and awa in shallow waters for the purpose of stocking fish ponds. Small pebbles, frequently ringed or pierced, are used for sinkers; pieces of hibiscus and kukui tree for the floaters. Nets of 1 to 2 inch mesh are used for the larger mullet.

The finest of all kinds of nets (nae) has only one-fourth inch mesh. The ‘pua’ net is for young mullet fry for stocking ponds or for eating.

This net is generally a piece, a fathom square, attached on two sides to sticks about 3 feet in length and fulled in, the bottom rope being shorter than the upper one and forming an irregular square opening to a shallow bag, which is supplemented by a long narrow bag about 3 or 4 inches wide and 2 feet deep. (All of the information here is from Hawaiian Fishing Implements and Methods of Fishing, Emma Metcalf Beckley Nakuina)

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